Blood's a Rover

You don't get a lot of commas in a James Ellroy book. Ellroy's sentences are simple, declarative, and usually brutal: "Wayne scared him. Wayne didn't scare the other guys. Froggy defied Wayne. Froggy said they could keep the dope biz clandestine . . . Wayne was scary because he processed evil shit and fed it back to you . . ."

Blood's a Rover is the third book in Ellroy's Underworld US trilogy, which aims to uncover the secret, criminal histories - the "evil shit" - of American political life. We are in the years 1968-72, and our main characters are the FBI man Dwight Holly; the ex-cop Wayne Tedrow, who now works for Howard Hughes and the Mafia, and was revealed as the "real" killer of Martin Luther King in the previous instalment (there are no lone assassins in Ellroy's world); and Don Crutchfield, whose passion for voyeurism gives his job description of private eye a whole new resonance. Along the way we are treated to conspiracies, murders, armed robberies, extortion, blackmail, prostitution, sex films, race hate, drug runs and all-round general goonishness in the streets, hotels, nightclubs, bedrooms and carnivals of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The trilogy's technique is to collide brutal procedural prose with familiar historical events, but whereas the earlier books focused on single public moments - the assassination of John F Kennedy in American Tabloid, those of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in The Cold Six Thousand - here the central objects are a stash of stolen emeralds and the eroto-political pursuit of a dark woman of the revolution, which gives the book a more poignant feel.

As in all the best pulp fiction, Ellroy's characters are driven by a single obsession or perversion. Often they are motherless men in lust with mysterious women old enough to be their mothers. In softer moments, they might brew up concoctions of narcotics in order to re-cohere, or "de-schiz", and sometimes to chase after revelation. Meanwhile they paint the scenery red with their bullets in a world where every location, no matter how exotic or ordinary, is "nothing but coups, revolts, plots, intrigue, slaughter". Ellroy is writing about the Dominican Republic here, but that's a fair description of every region of his world.

Ellroy has written memoir before, and done it well (My Dark Places), but his fictions now increasingly read like a series of self-portraits. Crutchfield aka "Dipshit" aka "Peeper" aka Pariguayo ("party-watcher") is the juvenile lead here, and his is the story of geekery trium­phant. I don't usually approve of reading text as a symptom or reflection of its author, but in Crutchfield's lonerness, his mother fixation, in the mountains of paper he accumulates as he obsessively follows official and unofficial trails, the author is presenting himself.

Whether what any of the characters, or their author, is working on happens to be true or not becomes rather irrelevant. We read Ellroy for the relentless force of his voice and energies, not because we believe that every murderous American instrument of the second half of the 20th century had J Edgar Hoover's fingerprints on it. Similarly, the gossip he throws at us -

Charlton Heston snitched potheads. Sal Mineo snitched rump rascals wholesale . . . The Duke's [John Wayne's] a cross-dresser
. . . He wears a size 56 extra-long muumuu . . .
Natalie [Wood] was a show lez. She
muff-munched at Hollywood parties . . .

-is gloriously scurrilous and entertaining. It doesn't need to be true.

Ellroy makes the reader a promise at the beginning: "This book derives from stolen public files and usurped private journals . . . Scripture-pure veracity and scandal-rag content . . . You will read with some reluctance and capitulate in the end." It is hard not to succumb to such bullying authorial bravado.

David Flusfeder's most recent novel is "The Pagan House" (Harper Perennial, £7.99)

Blood's a Rover
James Ellroy
Century, 662pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro